On networking, privilege, and the People's Front of Judea

So after I wrote this post about the relatively modest importance of networking at APSA, there were some follow-up posts by Dan Nexon and Erik Voeten that made similar points about networking at APSA.  This then triggered cogent counter-posts by Laura SjobergChristian Davenport, and Will Moore about the vital importance of networking at APSA and more generally in the profession -- particularly for scholars who lack "privilege" in one form or another.  This in turn, prompted a smart response by Bear Braumoeller.

I encourage political scientists to read all of these posts.  Rhetorical kerfuffles aside, I do think there are some swathes of agreement.  Both Sjoberg and Davenport note that the "baseline" for success in this field is the caliber of one's research.  Davenport's anecdote about "bumrushing" a senior scholar with his packet -- and then prospering from that new network tie -- doesn't happen unless the contents of Davenport's packet are pretty good.   

Furthermore, both Davenport and Sjoberg warn against the kind of "networking" that Braumoeller defines/talks about here: 

In my experience, when graduate students talk about “networking” at big conferences like APSA, they’re talking about meeting fairly senior and well-known people for the sake of meeting them. My own sense is that there isn’t much value to that practice. Despite being skeptical, I did try it myself once as a graduate student. The response reminded me of stories I’d read about Lyndon B. Johnson. I never tried it again. As a professor, I’ve spent some very pleasant social hours at conferences with various graduate students, but those evenings don’t really have any weight when it comes to hiring decisions and the like.

This is certainly the kind of networking at APSA that I was pushing back on in my original post.  But Moore, Davenport and Sjoberg in particular are correct -- there are forms of networking in general that can have value-added to one's career. 

Now, onto the emendations and disagreements.  First, the reason I've bolded at APSA so far is to stress that this was the scope conditions on the previous posts that were minimizing its importance.  Both Sjoberg and Moore, however, stress the potentially significant value of networking as a general rule for particular scholars.  I don't disagree -- but since that goes way beyond the scope conditions, this observation is neither here nor there.

Second, in her post, Sjoberg cautions that "I’m not suggesting that networking comes naturally to any of us, or that it is always effective. Certainly, there are more or less effective strategies (ah, the stories I could tell …) and strategies need to be tailored to the situation."  I'd challenge Laura to follow up on that caveat, because while she and Davenport stress the benefits of good networking, they don't discuss the risks of bad networking.  I have seen ham-handed, anxiety-fueled efforts to connect with senior people at APSA and more generally -- and they can leave some permanent scar tissue on one's career.  I have no doubt when Davenport talks about his success in networking, he's telling the truth.  But this is because I know Christian, I was colleagues with Christian, and in my experience he could charm Tom Coburn into doubling the NSF's political science budget.  The rest of us mortals are a different story.  So just as there is an asymmetric distribution of prestige in our small, small world, there's also an asymmetric distribution of social capabilities.  I'm curious what Sjoberg and Davenport would advise those who are uncomfortable with schmoozing to do at APSA et al. 

A final disagreement:  Moore accuses Nexon, Voeten, Braumoeller and me of "believing that advice drawn from [our] experience is universally valuable" when we're all privileged mansplaining white dudes with fancy-pants degrees who work at fancy-pants institutions.  We therefore have no comprehension about the utility of networking from a subaltern perspective, and are acting in a pernicious manner by offering a meritocratic fairy tale of focusing just on "the work," when we all know that one's academic station matters. 

Now, without going into paroxysms of self-status analysis, let's stipulate that I'm guilty of all those appellations.  And I've even pushed this meritocratic point in previous blog posts despite some personal history that suggests other factors might matter in determining one's academic career trajectory. But Will seems to believe that I took my own experiences of networking (or lack thereof) and generalized from them, which suggests that he possesses some Jedi mind tricks with which I'm unfamiliar to get into my head and divine my method and motives.  For the record, however, I'd note that my post wasn't based so much on my own grad student experiences as my observations of grad students at my places of employment -- including, hey, those from Will's alma mater -- who twist themselves into neurotic knots trying to ingratiate themselves with their scholarly heroes.  At APSA

That said, I'll concede that, much like blogging, networking can be a possible source of comparative advantage for some emerging scholars, provided you have the tools for it -- and provided that you have good work to talk about once you've established your social ties.  Because without the work, this is all a massive exercise in bullshit.

Normally, this is the point where I'd ask if I'm missing anything.  With posts about academic politics, however, there comes a point after which the debate resembles the mutterings of the People's Front of Judea, so I'm not going to ask this time around.  But I look forward to reading the practical advice of Sjoberg and others. 


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